Lady Flames D1 hockey takes the victory over No. 10 Miami
No win in the ACHA National Tournament comes easy. This sentiment rang true for the Lady Flames on March 18 as they engaged in an intense battle with the No. 10 Miami Redhawks, managing to pull away in the final minutes with a 3-1 victory.
Entering the tournament as the No. 1 seed in women’s D1, it was anticipated that Liberty would soar past the tournament’s lowest seed. The two teams had met earlier in the season, a series that resulted in a pair of 12-1 and 1-0 triumphs.
Now, squaring off on postseason ice, the Redhawks would test the Lady Flames beyond expectation, forcing Liberty to fight relentlessly for a quarterfinal victory.
In the first period of tournament play, the Lady Flames simply sent pucks flying, putting 15 shots on goal opposed to the Redhawks’ three.
Whatever was sent Miami goaltender Maya Gonzalez’s way, however, was promptly turned away. Slapshots, deflections, one-timers, rebounds — nothing could make its way past Gonzalez to find the back of the net.
The solid play between the pipes brought frustration the Lady Flames’ way, who had spent the majority of the period in Miami’s zone.
“When a goalie’s hot like that, whether we’re hitting her or she’s making big saves, it makes you as a player grip your stick a little bit tighter and makes you a little more anxious and doubt yourself,” Liberty Assistant Coach Justin Forth said. “It hits your confidence when you’re coming in to shoot, but again I think the girls did a good job not giving up and continuing to attack and getting the job done.”
The Lady Flames left the ice scoreless after the first, eager to make tournament magic happen in the game’s final 40 minutes. Six minutes into the second, Liberty’s Brielle Fussy would do just that, putting a slapshot past the immovable netminder and propelling her team ahead 1-0.
The one-goal advantage, however, would not be enough to keep the Redhawks at bay. A penalty for too many men midway through the third period granted Miami the man advantage, and freshman forward Laura Labarre would stun the crowd with a shot that managed to creep into the net.
Now a tied game, Liberty was desperate to get another puck past Gonzalez. The goaltender, however, had no intentions of letting one leak through. Liberty took shot after shot, but no matter the location or method, Gonzalez stood firm. The Lady Flames outshot the Redhawks 62-17 on the night.
“It’s about encouraging them and reminding them that they’re doing a lot of good things,” Forth said. “When you’re getting 40 or 50 shots, you’re doing a lot of good things. It’s just about getting them to continue to do what they’re doing and get rewarded.
While the reward would take time, the payoff finally came. Liberty found itself on the man advantage with just minutes to go, and with 3:49 on the clock, junior forward Rianna Spanier unleashed a shot from the top of the right circle.
Caught up in traffic, Gonzalez was unable to make the save, and the puck found twine in the left corner of the net. The Lady Flames relished in the moment, one that would ultimately be the deciding factor in who moved on to the semifinal contest.
“It was super exciting,” Spanier said. “We were on our toes for the last couple minutes, and nothing was going through. Their goaltender played a heck of a game, she should be so proud of herself. You know what, it was the third times a charm in that spot. But I was happy to put it forth and celebrate with my team.”
The goal was Spanier’s 14th on the season and third on the power play.
“It’s nice for her to get rewarded,” Forth said. “She’s been a big goal-scorer for us all year this year, so it was nice for her to get a big, important winning goal at the national tournament.”
Not even a minute later, senior forward Brityn Fussy put the game away with a goal assisted by freshman defenseman Emerson Oakes to give Liberty the 2-0 advantage. The lead was insurmountable for Miami, and Lady Flames would celebrate a gritty first-round victory as the buzzer sounded with a 3-1 final.
“It’s really nice to see the girls be rewarded for their hard work and resilience,” Forth said. “It’s good for team morale to pull off a dramatic win, but it’s a little tough on the nerves. But the girls got a win, and we just have to take a minute and enjoy it before preparing for tomorrow.”
After the nerve-wracking triumph, the Lady Flames are now set to see the Adrian Bulldogs in the semifinal matchup, a team they swept both on the road and in their own barn this season.
Liberty knows, however, that the prior meetings hold no bearing because anything can happen come tournament time.
“Nationals is a fair playing ground for anyone,” Spanier said. “There’s definitely a few tweaks we want to make here and there.”
“We need to score more earlier and often,” Forth said. “I think we need to simplify our game a little bit, keep the puck more to the outside, use the glass when needed and get the puck deep.”
The ladies will take the ice Sunday, March 19 for the chance to return to the ACHA National Championship game once again. The game is streaming exclusively on Hockey TV.
Cory is the sports editor for the Liberty Champion. Follow her on Twitter